Russia's relations with independent countries that once formed the Soviet Union have often been contentious, and Moscow's efforts to exert influence in the region have also led to tensions with the West, particularly as NATO has taken in new members from the former Soviet sphere of influence. A senior U.S. diplomat visiting Moscow is urging Russia to take a more hands off approach with former Soviet states, arguing that giving them freedom to conduct their foreign and economic affairs will, in the end, benefit Russia more. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has this report.

David Merkel is a new Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, having assumed duties for European and Eurasian affairs in March. Besides Russia, his diplomatic portfolio includes Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and regional non-proliferation issues.

Merkel underscores the sovereign right of each former Soviet republic to conduct its own domestic and foreign policy. He notes that U.S. interests in the area, which Moscow refers to as its "near abroad," do not collide with Russia's.

"I think Russia would be in a better place with some of its neighbors if it recognized that they have interests in developing greater relationships with the European Union, with the United States, with China, with other countries," he said.

The United States supports ongoing efforts by the governments of Ukraine and Georgia to develop closer ties with NATO, despite opposition not only by Moscow, but also by a majority of people in Ukraine. David Merkel recognizes such opposition, but says NATO convinced skeptics in other Eastern European countries that eventually joined the alliance. He adds that NATO would help bring stability and prosperity to the borders of Russia, which would benefit Moscow.

"It's interesting when you look at previous NATO aspirants that are now members. In every case, Russian trade with these countries increased - Bulgaria, Romania - there are a number of different examples," he said.

However, independent Russian political analyst Alexander Konovalov attributes better trade to better economic policies, not to membership in a military alliance. He also warns that Georgia's entry into NATO could further exacerbate tensions in the country's breakaway Abkhazia region, triggering a domino effect of separatism in other volatile areas of the Caucasus that belong to Russia, such as Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Konovalov says Moscow is concerned that Ukrainian membership in NATO could be accompanied by the Schengen Agreement on movement of people and goods across borders of the European Union. That agreement, he says, could tighten the Russian-Ukrainian frontier and hurt people on both sides who rely on existing trade links between the two countries.

Konovalov says if Ukraine is quickly dragged into NATO or if it drifts in that direction too soon, Russian-Ukrainian trade links will begin to break. He says the process of drawing Ukraine closer to the West should be synchronized with a similar process of drawing Russia closer to the West, taking care not to disrupt ties between Ukraine and Russia.

Konovalov agrees with David Merkel's observation that economic development is linked to civic values such as equal application of the law, sanctity of contracts, and low corruption, because they underpin investor confidence. However, Konovalov says the connection is not obvious to people raised in the Soviet Union. A solution, he says, is to encourage private property.

The analyst says the more owners there are the more people will understand that much depends on them. He says they need to know that their property won't be taken away, and if there is a problem, they should be able to prove ownership in a court of law.

Merkel notes the importance of the law on an international level, particularly in energy distribution, which affects Russia as a supplier, Europe as a consumer and Ukraine as a transit state.

"We in the U.S. want to work closely with the European Union to make Ukraine a more transparent transit for energy - where there is not opportunity for diversion of gas - and an efficient transit for the hydrocarbons from Russia to Europe," he said.

David Merkel praises cooperation with Moscow on weapons non-proliferation and also welcomes the support of Russia and Ukraine in the resolution of tensions in the Transdnistria area of Moldova. At the same time, the American diplomat says criminal investigations into the unsolved murders of journalists should remain a top law enforcement priority in Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states.